By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
As he walked up to the free throw line with 16.4 second left in the game and his team up by one point, all K.J. McDaniels could think about was that cold tub that was calling his name in the training room.
The sophomore and his Clemson teammates were seconds away from getting their first real break in almost 10 days. The Tigers were finishing their fourth game in nine days, but before McDaniels could get in a cold tub or get some extra sleep he had to first make those free throws.
“I just concentrated and saw myself mentally knocking them in,” the forward said. “Bending my legs, that was real important too. They hurt, but I did what I had to do for the team.”
He made both free throws and then he and his teammates played defense one more time as Brandon Reed’s attempt to force overtime for Georgia Tech fell off the back of the rim to complete Clemson’s 63-60 victory.
“That was a really gutty performance I thought by my guys,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. “We needed to win a game like this. Obviously, when you lose a game like Florida State that really hurt and the one at NC State kind of did too for that matter. We were right there and had a chance to steal one in an unbelievable environment. That would have been huge as well.
“But to be able to come back twice and hold serve as you (the media) say with winning our two home games, it is good for our guys. We are a young team still trying to learn how to win and how to do things. A lot of guys in our program are still learning how to make big plays and those were big free throws by K.J. at the end to win it.”
McDaniels finished the game with 15 points, the only Tiger to score in double figures. With Clemson inbounding the ball and clinging to that one point lead, the play was designed to go to McDaniels in the corner.
Brownell knew he needed to get the ball to McDaniels and his players also wanted McDaniels to have the basketball at the end.
“Everyone on the team told me after the game that they knew I was going to hit those free throws,” he said. “I liked the confidence they have in me and that builds my trust with them more.”
It’s obvious during this grueling four-game stretch that the players trust each other. With leading scorer Devin Booker still ailing from the flu and fellow senior Milton Jennings fouling out, Clemson had to rely on its younger players –McDaniels, Damarcus Harrison and Bernard Sullivan—to come through, especially in the clutch.
For the second straight game Harrison played well, scoring eight points, having three assists and four steals. Sullivan had one of his more productive nights of his career, tying his career-high with seven points, including a dunk off a miss shot midway through the second half.
“The coaches have told me to be patient because there will come a time when I will have to help the team,” he said. “All I really wanted to do was do what I could and really provide energy and help the team get the win.”
No one was happier to see that kind of energy than Harrison, who said his legs were dragging.
“My legs were really heavy, they were logs,” he said. “It was hard to guard and chase people off screens early. I was very winded. Luckily, we have good teammates that came off the bench to help us while we got the breaks on the bench.”
By the end of the game, Clemson (12-8, 4-4 ACC) was extremely tired. Booker, who had eight points and six rebounds, was running out of gas, while point guard Rod Hall started cramping. Adonis Filer came in and gave the Tigers a big lift at the end, including a pull up jumper from the free throw line with a hand in his face.
“He and Rod and those guys are going to have to make some plays to win some games,” Brownell said. “They are going to have to make plays at the end of games, today it was free throws so that was good. It is a learning experience for all of those guys.”
And now they can finally get some rest.
“I’m exhausted as I speak now,” McDaniels said. “Tomorrow is a day off. I’m even hearing the cold tub.”